Defining Skyscape

The term skyscape was first used within the remit of cultural astronomy in 2006 by Jan Harding and collaborators in an article published in the Archaeoastronomy journal,1 and established in a session of the Theoretical Archaeology Group meeting of 2012, organized by myself and Nicholas Campion, director of the Sophia Centre. But it was not until 2015 that it reached a wider academic audience.

Three significant events galvanized the term in 2015: Oxbow Books published a collection of papers delivered in that formative TAG session, titled Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Meanwhile, the Archaeoastronomy module offered by the Sophia Centre as part of its MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology was retitled Skyscapes, Cosmology and Archaeology and its curriculum redesigned to fall in line with this theme. And last but not least, that very same year, the Journal of Skyscape Archaeology, co-founded and co-edited by myself and Liz Henty, published its first two issues.

The term was met positively by archaeoastronomers and archaeologists alike, which bodes well for its future. However, there is still some confusion about its meaning, with some archaeoastronomers thinking of it as a mixture of sky and landscape, which was and is not its intended significance. Here I would like to present and discuss the theoretical underpinnings of the term skyscape, including the motivation behind the term and how the two definitions in print fare against that motivation.

In his 1999 book Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, the archaeoastronomer Clive L. N. Ruggles, one of the leading figures in the field, wrote of prehistoric astronomy when discussing the way prehistoric societies engaged with the sky. Other terms often found in the archaeoastronomical literature include megalithic science, megalithic astronomy and ancient astronomy. In a more recent volume, Ruggles defined archaeoastronomy as a field concerned with ‘every conceivable form of data that might provide insights into thoughts and practices relating to astronomy in the past’.2 This is a good, broad definition, yet it demonstrates a degree of anachronism. I am in no way criticising Ruggles himself, who has done more to bridge the gap between cultural astronomy and archaeology than anyone else, alive or dead. What I am critiquing here is the emphasis on the word astronomy, particularly when applied to prehistoric people, but equally generalizable to any non-western society. The problem is a simple one: does it make sense to talk of a prehistoric astronomy?

Astronomy is a very specific form of engagement with the heavens. It has a long history – it is usually considered the oldest of the natural sciences – but in modern times it has crystallized as ‘the study of the space beyond the Earth and its contents’, as defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy.3 Study implies a peculiar kind of interest in the subject matter, an almost detached interest. Indeed, this is strengthened by the exclusion in the above definition of the Earth and, therefore, of any possible relation between the Earth and space, or the sky. The emphasis of astronomy is on an objective reading of an external subject – the sky – itself devoid of meaning. This is achieved through application of the scientific method alone, which helps identify laws that are then formalized mathematically.

This description is filled with uniquely western characteristics: positivism, objectivity, lack of meaning, laws, and mathematics. However, not all societies, present or past, engage with the heavens in this manner, nor would they be interested in this particular form of engagement. Even within western society, most philosophers since Kant would disagree that the universe (i.e., the cosmos or reality) can be objectively described by mathematical, and hence conceptual, frameworks, let alone non-western peoples.4

Beyond western society, Campion has demonstrated in his 2012 book Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions that ‘there is no human society that does not somehow, in some way, relate its fears, concerns, hopes, and wishes to the sky’.5 This point is strengthened by the ethnographical record which attests that, for many societies, ‘important celestial bodies are perceived as animate entities and their motions in the sky are described in terms of social relations […]. Human societies often people their skies with supernaturals, ancestors or mythological heroes to whom they become related through family ties, mythological narratives, political alliances or power relationships’, as Stanislaw Iwaniszewski put it.6 Astronomy, as defined by the modern West, excludes such forms of engagement.

This sharp contrast between western and non-western engagements demands that we question whether the interpretations of structural alignments to celestial objects have been influenced, either explicitly or implicitly, by the forced use of the word astronomy. Already from its early days, archaeoastronomy was plagued by unfounded claims of megalithic science, astronomer-priests and prehistoric observatories, but it is important to realise that what all these interpretative elements have in common is that they relate to the modern concept of astronomy, namely to its method (science), its professional (the astronomer), and its institution (the observatories). We’ve certainly moved on from this fallacious paradigm, yet how much are we actually still being influenced by it, as evidenced by our persistence in applying the word astronomy to non-western peoples?

The problems of forcing western terms to describe indigenous beliefs and practices are neither new nor restricted to archaeoastronomy: they are as old as anthropology. It has only been in the past few decades that it was recognized that applying western terms such as religion, magic, witchcraft and sorcery into other societies – as indeed most ethnographers were prone to do – was counter-productive to the anthropological enterprise.7 To overcome this issue, anthropologists have been advocating the use of emic terms, that is, terms derived from the very people they study, rather than those imposed on them by the ethnographers.8

We could, and indeed we should, use emic terms describing a society’s relation to the sky whenever possible, however in many cases (as indeed for all prehistoric societies) an emic term does not exist or cannot be recovered. It is in these instances that I would advocate the use of a new, purpose-built and value-free, general term – for which skyscape is a good option for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, the term has a ‘clean past’, stemming from the art world where it represents ‘a picture that includes an extensive view of the sky’.9 The term is being appropriated, but not repurposed, for even in its artsy crib, the term already implies a subjective representation, since any art form can be said to be a materialization of meaning. Second, it mirrors and recalls the term landscape. The landscape is an already well-established field of inquiry in both anthropology and archaeology and therefore provides a good counterpoint and framework for what we can do with the concept of skyscape.10 I have elaborated on the comparable characteristics of skyscapes and cultural landscapes in the introduction to the Skyscapes volume, and elsewhere, and others have further developed the links between the two (see, for example, the article by Daniel Brown in Culture and Cosmos 17.2).

Having a new term, however, is not enough, for it can easily be misappropriated, misunderstood, or misused. The point is not to effect a simple relabelling but to ensure that, by doing it, we permeate the field with a stronger interest in social issues, in how the skyscape is imbued with meaning, how it is intimately related to, and interpenetrates with, the beliefs and practices of people. In the process, a modicum of reflexivity,11 where we identify and critique the biases we bring to our research, should equally be part of the skyscape ‘mission’.

As Bruno Latour put it, there is ‘no good word anyway, only sensible usage’.12 Therefore, before we attempt to define skyscape, or argue for a particular definition among several possible, we should specify what would constitute sensible usage for the term – a set of axioms, to borrow the term from mathematics. The need, identified above, is for a conceptual framework that: 1) is general enough that it can be applied across most, if not all, societies and, therefore, be inclusive of known emic terms, including astronomy and astrology; 2) brings meaning, thick description and social context to the fore; and 3) brings reflexivity into our terminology, theory, and method. These axioms will act as a guide as we look at, and compare, two ways in which scholars have used the word skyscape.

Skyscapes as Cultural Constructs

‘…the sky is a natural phenomenon that is turned into a cultural skyscape through human agency.’13

This sentence, taken from the introduction to the Skyscapes volume, captures the definition of skyscape as a cultural construct. Such a skyscape is neither acultural, nor natural, nor anything else that doesn’t involve agency. Humans conceptualize skyscapes: humans look up to the sky and derive or attach meaning to celestial objects; humans correlate those objects with other aspects of social life; they create art to represent their own views of the celestial objects; they build monumental structures with alignments to them; they tell stories about them. This is the view I originally espoused in 2012, even though it only reached print in 2015.

Skyscapes, therefore are indigenous conceptual frameworks that constitute a society’s understanding of ‘the heavens and the celestial bodies and how they relate back down to human beliefs and practices, to their notions of time and place, to their structures and material remains’.14 This is the view also expressed by Iwaniszewski when he wrote that the ‘sky is an aspect of the physical universe which is universally perceived by all humans, although comprehended and structured in different ways’: he simply didn’t have a word for it yet.15

The implication is that different societies ‘see completely different skyscapes’ even though they might see the same sky.16 Ethnographical and historical examples abound – for instance, of different societies forming differently shaped constellations. A skyscape would be formed not only of those constellations (in addition to other celestial objects), but also of the socio-cultural elements associated with them: stories and myths, agricultural or environmental cycles, art, structures that align with them, topographic features marking their risings and settings, etc. The skyscape is meaning mapped into, or pre-existing in, the sky. Indeed, such a skyscape would be part and parcel of a society’s worldview, of their cosmovision or cosmology, the part that specifically relates to the celestial objects.

There is a lot of good in this definition. Firstly, every society will have their own version(s) of a skyscape (axiom 1). Some societies might give it a name, or names, such as sky, heaven, paradise, Duat, Asgard, Tlalocan, astronomy or astrology; all of which are examples of skyscapes. Secondly, this definition of skyscape highlights its cultural, and therefore social, aspects (axiom 2). This is a significant step up from using the word astronomy which, as we saw, excludes these aspects. Thirdly, it puts agency at the centre of the debate, since it is through agency that skyscapes are constructed out of the ‘raw material’ of the sky. Agency, defined as ‘the proposition that human beings think about the intentional actions they perform and the resources they need to achieve their ends’,17 is a very powerful concept in anthropology that, unfortunately, still hasn’t found a foothold within archaeoastronomy, despite some very brave attempts.18 And finally, it implies a level of theoretical reflexivity (axiom 3) not often found in archaeoastronomy, as it demands that the scholar not only pay lip service to the socio-cultural context, but actually attempts to contextualise any identified alignments or iconography of a celestial nature within the period and culture – without this, one is not identifying a skyscape, but merely a celestial target of potential interest to that society.

Skyscapes as Sky and Landscape

Some scholars, perhaps mistaking metaphor for metonymy, have been using the term skyscape to refer to the sky as a part of the landscape, as forming a union of sky and landscape, or to highlight the intersection of land and sky – the horizon. This was expressed for the first time in print by Daniel Brown in his Culture & Cosmos article previously mentioned. He wrote that the ‘meaning for an alignment can now be negotiated within the landscape with emphasis on its skyscape component…’,19 which seems to imply that a given society actually conceives of sky and land as a unity.

Indeed, both the sky and the land are elements of the world of every society, which means we cannot ignore either one.20 And some societies can conceptualize the sky as part of the landscape, as Fabiola Jara has suggested for the Lokono and Carib.21 In other cases, the sky might be conceived to have characteristics and features similar to those of a landscape, such as containing fields, rivers and lakes. But this is far from being a universal feature.

Both the historic and ethnographic record are full of iconography, texts and tales relating to celestial objects in the absence of, or despite the presence of, the landscape. In his afterword to the Skyscapes volume, Timothy Darvill highlighted a key difference between the landscape and skyscape: ‘Whereas the landscape is physically appropriated though modification and thereby turned into a dimension of tangible material culture, skyscapes by contrast are metaphysically appropriated through projection whereby intangible material culture is mapped onto the heavens’.22 There is a materiality to the landscape that is of a different nature to that of the skyscape: landscapes are accessible, can be tangibly manipulated; skyscapes only metaphorically or by non-humans. Phenomenologically they are also very distinct, particularly during the day: the sky is blue, grey, or black; the landscape green, brown, or grey. From this perspective, the skyscape might actually share a lot more in common with sea- or waterscapes: they are both blue during day, black at night; the sky has white clouds, whereas moving water typically forms white spume; water can reflect celestial objects both during the day and night; the Milky Way at night is similar to a river, and so on.23

The point is that, though some societies might see the sky and landscape as one, not all societies will do this, and even those that do might not attach particular value to that aspect of it. Therefore, and in the interest of generality of use (our first axiom), it is counter-productive to restrict ourselves a priori by considering the skyscape to be the union of sky and landscape. By doing so, we impose a reductionist framework to our academic inquiry, one that is not necessarily shared by the societies we study. In this sense, such a definition would be as flawed as using the term astronomy (which this definition actually excludes), and we would be back to square one.

By this I don’t mean that we should stop studying the skyscape in its relation to the landscape. By all means, there is power and potential in looking at skyscape and landscape together,24 indeed most archaeoastronomical work of the past half century has inevitably been done in this way, as scholars were interested in rising and setting events that occur at or close to the horizon. There is nothing wrong with such an approach, in fact the best research questions look not at a single but at a multiplicity of parameters. So, while such research projects are worthy endeavours, I do not see in them a need for rebranding.

Adopting this definition of skyscape would also fail to bring about the change demanded by axioms two and three: it might reduce some biases, but at the cost of introducing new ones; nor would it add sufficient reflexivity to our scholarship. One of the main motivations with the introduction of the new term was to expand what has been done so far into consideration of other aspects of a society’s worldview, aspects that are of much more interest to archaeologists, anthropologists and historians than just the identification of potential celestial targets of structural alignments. The skyscape can and should be looked at in connection to other aspects of society too: religion, ritual, ontology, magic, notions of time and place, etc.

Skyscape was introduced as a neutral term intended to replace a value-laden one – astronomy – that has been anachronistically projected into societies where it has no place. Such ethno-projections reveal more about our modern biases than the societies we study, and their continued use, despite any methodological precautions and disclaimers, can be anchor points through which unconscious memetic viruses pass through the best methodological firewalls, potentially leading to interpretations that betray their, otherwise unspoken, presence. Even worse, they can prevent scholars from taking the leap into what Clifford Geertz called thick description,25 as if the scholar had been spontaneously and utterly destroyed by the virus before it got a chance to interpret and contextualize the identified structural alignment within the society that built and used the structure.

Only in defining a skyscape as a cultural construct, can this act of relabelling fulfil its intended role as a theoretical rift meant to put theory and method at the forefront of our field, starting with reflexive thinking about the very words we use, as well as putting a stronger emphasis on social relations and cultural contextualization. When understood in this way, the term’s application should not be restricted to the subjects of archaeoastronomy or skyscape archaeology: it applies equally across the entire field of cultural astronomy. It makes sense to use the word skyscape to describe and conceptualize the way a particular society engages with the sky, regardless of whether one is studying that society via its archaeological remains, historical texts, imagery or by interviewing or observing its members. The skyscape, in its original definition, is the broadest possible term for what we have been, perhaps uncritically, calling cultural astronomy and astrology.

Nevertheless, and despite fulfilling all three axioms, such a view of the skyscape betrays a lack of engagement with the ‘ontological turn’ that has been taking the humanities by storm.26 In effect, this issue is endemic to all of cultural astronomy: our terminology, methods and interpretations all work under a Cartesian substantivist ontology, wherein reality is composed of a single world (one nature), but many worldviews (many cultures), as Darvill highlighted in his afterword to Skyscapes.27 This is yet another western imposition, albeit one that operates at much deeper levels. We should therefore seek to reframe skyscape in a way that, at the very least, acknowledges that other societies can have different ontologies. But that will be the topic for a future post.

Fabio Silva

Fabio Silva

Fabio Silva is currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at IPHES (Spain) and a tutor in the Sophia Centre, where he is responsible for the 'Skyscapes, Cosmology and Archaeology' module. He is co-founder of the Journal of Skyscape Archaeology and received the Fifth Carlos Jaschek Award from SEAC in 2016. He also co-edited several books, including Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology (Oxbow Books, 2015) and The Materiality of the Sky (Sophia Centre Press, 2016).
Fabio Silva

Latest posts by Fabio Silva (see all)

  1. Jan Harding, B Johnson and G Goodrich 2006, Neolithic Cosmology and the Monument Complex of Thornborough, North Yorkshire. Archaeoastronomy 20: 26-51.
  2. Clive L.N. Ruggles 2011, Pushing back the frontiers or still running around the same circles? ‘Interpretative archaeoastronomy’ thirty years on. Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 7(S278): 1-18, p.1. Available online.
  3. Ian Ridpath 2012. Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy. 2nd revised ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.36. Available online.
  4. See, for example, Peter Gratton 2014. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp.13-38.
  5. Nicholas Campion N 2012, Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions. New York University Press, p.1.
  6. Stanislaw Iwaniszewski 2011, The sky as a social field. Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 7 (S278): 20-37, p.31. Available online.
  7. See, for example, Mary Douglas 1970. Introduction: Thirty Years after Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic. In Mary Douglas (ed), Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations. London and New York: Routledge, pp. xiii-xxxviii.
  8. Marvin Harris 2001. The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. Revised ed. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, pp. 568-604.
  9. Fabio Silva 2015, The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology: an introduction. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p.1.
  10. See, for example: Robert Layton, and P Ucko (eds) 1999. The Archaeology and Anthropology of Landscape. London and New York: Routledge; Bruno David and J Thomas (eds) 2016. Handbook of Landscape Archaeology. Oxon and New York: Routledge.
  11. See, for example, Charlotte A. Davies 1999. Reflexive Ethnography: A Guide to Researching Selves and Others. London and New York: Routledge.
  12. Bruno Latour 2005. Reassembling the Social: an introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.132.
  13. Fabio Silva 2015, The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology: an introduction. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p.2.
  14. Fabio Silva 2015, The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology: an introduction. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p.3.
  15. Stanislaw Iwaniszewski 2011, The sky as a social field. Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 7(S278): 20-37, p.30. Available online. [my emphasis]
  16. Fabio Silva 2015, The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology: an introduction. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p.2.
  17. Timothy Darvill 2009. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology (2 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available online.
  18. Stanislaw Iwaniszewski 2011, The sky as a social field. Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 7(S278): 20-37, p.30. Available online; Stanislaw Iwaniszewski 2016, The social life of celestial bodies: the sky in cultural perspective. In M.A. Rappenglück, B. Rappenglück, N. Campion and F. Silva (eds) Astronomy and Power: How Worlds are Structured. BAR International Series S2794. Oxford: BAR Publishing, pp.11-16.
  19. Daniel Brown 2013, The Experience of Watching: place defined by the trinity of land-, sea-, and skyscape. Culture & Cosmos 17(2): 5-24, p.24. Available online. [my emphasis]
  20. Nicholas Campion 2015, Skyscapes: Locating Archaeoastronomy within Academia. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 8-9.
  21. Fabiola Jara 2015, Skyscape of an Amazonian Diaspora: Arawak Astronomy in Historical Comparative Perspective. In C.L.N. Ruggles (ed) Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy. New York: Springer, p. 942.
  22. Timothy Darvill 2015, Afterword: Dances Beneath a Diamond Sky. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p.145. [my emphasis]
  23. For some thoughts in this direction, see Ilaria Cristofaro (in print) Reflecting the Sky in Water: A Phenomenological Exploration of Water-skyscapes. Journal of Skyscape Archaeology 3(1).
  24. See, for example, Fabio Silva 2014. A Tomb with a View: New Methods for bridging the gap between land and sky in megalithic archaeology. Advances in Archaeological Practice 2(1): 24-37.
  25. Clifford Geertz 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, pp. 3-30.
  26. See, for example: Bruno Latour 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; A. Henare, M. Holbraad and S Wastell 2007. Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically. London and New York: Routledge; Eduardo Viveiros de Castro 2015. The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds. Chicago: Hau Books.
  27. Timothy Darvill 2015, Afterword: Dances Beneath a Diamond Sky. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p.141.